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Beyond the News

Promoting the Liberal Arts

University Business, January 2013

In the movie “Idiocracy,” the world has degenerated to garbage-filled state where people don’t know basic farming. Could this fate be avoided by maintaining support for the liberal arts? “These graduates are more involved in their communities, vote more, give more to charity,” says Richard Ekman, president of the Council of Independent Colleges, which recently launched its Campaign for the Liberal Arts. Liberal arts students also have the communication and problem solving skills employers say they want, he adds.

John Churchill, secretary of The Phi Beta Kappa Society, notes that liberal arts prepares people for lifelong learning needed for a career, not just a job. “You don’t get that through a pre-set, rote experience,” he says. While PBK has always advocated for the liberal arts, leaders are planning to ramp up their efforts in that area. The current view of the purpose of higher education has become “narrow and shortsighted,” Churchill says, because of the laserlike focus on the economy. Training people for employment is important, but “it’s not long range enough for higher ed in general. And not broad enough,” he explains.

In addition, the Association of American Colleges and Universities, which has been advocating for the liberal arts for years, released a new strategic plan this month that emphasizes the liberal arts. “We are, of course, very pleased to have more partners working together to advocate for the continued importance of both liberal education—as a broad philosophy—and the arts and sciences and core, foundational disciplines,” says Debra Humphreys, vice president for policy and public engagement at AAC&U.

Organization leaders are looking forward to coordinating efforts. While the new initiatives are still largely in the planning stages, similarities are starting to emerge. “Everyone speaks about how Steve Jobs and Bill Gates are proof that you don’t need to go to college to succeed,” says Ekman. “I want to point out people who did go to college.” Highlighting successful alumni is an activity colleges already engage in, as well as a tactic that has been successful for both community and for-profit colleges, he adds.

Another focus will be on informing both the media and students about the importance of liberal arts. When someone asks, “What can you do with an English degree?,” the answer should be “anything,” says Kenyon College (Ohio) President Georgia Nugent, who is heading the CIC effort.

Providing campus leaders with better tools for speaking to the public and the media will be an important piece. “We haven’t been as successful as we should be in getting the message out to the public that this education isn’t impractical,” says Nugent. “It is very practical because it trains you to learn.”